India greeted the first dawn of 2013 in mourning for the anonymous 23-year-old woman who died from injuries sustained during a brutal gang rape on a bus in Delhi. In a sombre series of announcements, the Indian army announced that it had cancelled all official celebrations, various Bollywood stars said there was nothing to celebrate and even the famously reclusive Sonia Gandhi, president of India’s governing Congress party, said she planned no revelries to ring in the new year.
It was meant to be an empathetic public statement of grief for the raped woman. But who was the semi-official empathy meant to reach? Was it India’s enraged middle class, which has been protesting furiously against rape and sexual violence for a fortnight? Was it international opinion, which has added deep-seated misogyny to the laundry list of problems that hold India back?
The ostentatious public sacrifice of New Year’s Eve parties by the great and the good is no more than a symbolic gesture. Any judgement on its power or pointlessness must be reserved until the Indian government’s promised measures to change women’s reality take effect.
Consider these five points that may mean little on their own but form a telling picture when taken together:
It was only in 1971 – 24 years after India won independence from Britain – that rape even started to feature in official record-keeping. In that year, just under 2,500 rapes were reported. In 2011, it was just under 25,000.
In the 2009 parliamentary elections, disparate political parties fielded six candidates who had been charged with rape and 27 similarly suspect characters in state elections over the last five years, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a political watchdog.
Tamil Nadu in southern India is the only state in the country to have a law against the sexual harassment of women, but even this remarkable piece of progressive legislation goes under a ridiculously frothy name: the Prohibition of Eve Teasing Act. It is a nod to a uniquely Indian euphemism for sexual harassment with all its lewd implications of women as Eve, the temptress, the one who provokes men into a slavering state of want.
The 2011 census revealed India’s appallingly skewed sex ratio as a consequence of female foeticide and infanticide. There were just 914 girls under the age of seven for every 1,000 boys. In 1961, it was 976 girls to 1,000 boys.
The day the raped girl died, a legislator in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan suggested that skirts be banned as school uniform to protect girls from sexual harassment.
In its public display of grief and well-publicised flurry of activity – setting up commissions of inquiry, fast-track courts, a help line for women in distress in Delhi – there is little indication that the Indian establishment has mapped out the contours of the problem.
At the outset, on the day the gang rape first made front-page headlines, the government seemed embarrassed and evasive. As public rage started to build to volcanic levels on the streets – and on television screens – the passivity changed to panic. Sonia Gandhi visited the raped girl in hospital. The police outdid themselves and rounded up all six perpetrators in record time.
At the height of the protests, a senior police officer in India’s commercial capital Mumbai offered women advice to stay safe: carry chilli powder and don’t go out at night. As people bayed for blood, setting off a hang-them-or-castrate-them cry that was appropriate to the Middle Ages, politicians rushed to agree. Meanwhile, busybodies are demanding that the dead girl be named (without regard for her grieving family’s desire for privacy) to complete her transformation into a modern icon.
In 1978, there was public outrage (but no candlelit vigils or impromptu shrines) when a middle-class teenage brother and sister were abducted in Delhi, the girl raped and both killed. But the Sanjay and Geeta Chopra case changed nothing about the way India dealt with rape. In fact, that tragic crime is only remembered today for the two bravery awards instituted in their names.
Barely 20 years ago, a Hindi film explored the stigma attached to rape, focusing on a female domestic worker and the systemic resistance to punishing the perpetrator. The film was called Damini, which is Hindi for lightning, and it is one of the three, beautiful, hopeful names that Indian media have given the anonymous victim. The others are Nirbhaya, or fearless, and Amanat, or treasure.
All of this would be touching if it didn’t seem like so much posturing. The only sliver of hope is the decision to widen the terms of reference from heinous crimes against women to “gender justice and respect towards womanhood”. That would mean a long-term plan, which would include sex education in schools, which is currently considered immoral. Raising the next generation to think of sex and women in a healthier way would address the grievance on a placard held aloft by an angry girl in Delhi: “Right now, society teaches don’t get raped, rather than don’t rape.”
Rashmee Roshan Lall, the former editor of The Sunday Times of India, is a freelance writer based in the US